Microsoft Word Flow Keyboard (for iPhone)

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Despite its disappointing market share, I remain a fan of the Windows 10 Mobile phone operating system, and one of my favorite things about it is the Word Flow keyboard. This keyboard is now available for the iPhone, whose default keyboard has long been a source of disappointment to those who've used mobile operating systems other than iOS. After experiencing quick text entry on Windows Phone by swiping across letters on a keyboard, pecking at individual letters on the iPhone keyboard is a letdown. And the new iPhone app version of Word Flow goes beyond what's in the Windows Phone version, with a semicircular mode for one-handed typing. 

Word Flow is a product of the Microsoft Garage incubator, whose Hub Keyboard didn't impress me much. This new add-in keyboard is a whole different story, though, and is very highly recommended. Third-party iPhone keyboards usually suffer from drawbacks such as slower startup and no access to the microphone icon for voice-to-text entry. I didn't notice the former, but the latter holds true with the Word Flow Keyboard. I also didn't notice the keyboard substituting less-common words for more-common ones, as SwiftKey  often does. That app also makes it hard to correct its suggestions, something I did not encounter in Word Flow.

Setup and Pricing
Many of the third-party keyboards available for iPhone are not free. For example, Nuance Swypecosts 99 cents and SwiftKey and Fleksy have in-app purchases. It is a technology that merits parting with cash, but Microsoft WordFlow is a free download from the iTunes App Store. The app requires iOS 9.0 or later, so if you haven't updated your device's operating system to that level, you're out of luck. It's a not-tiny 88MB, and works on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. For now, it's available only  in the U.S. App Store, so those abroad will have to wait.

On first run, the app plays a slideshow that walks you through setup and shows you what it can do. As with any third-party keyboard, Word Flow requires more steps than just the basic app installation. To get it to work, you'll need to go to Settings, tap Add New Keyboard, select Hub Keyboard, and allow it full access to the operating system. Note that turning on Allow Full Access in the Keyboards section of Settings does enable the developer to see anything you type, so if you think Microsoft is a snoopy, untrustworthy company, definitely don't enable it. You might consider, however, that the company recently surprised a lot of people by championing privacy.

The slideshow also helpfully tells you to hold the globe key to switch to Word Flow. Next, you choose a theme. There are nine choices at present, from very plain to ooh-ahh fractal patterns, and the team says more are coming. You can also choose an image from your Camera roll for a custom background and a custom text color from a color wheel.

Word Flow Keyboard Theme

The best part of the Word Flow Keyboard is that it lets you enter words with what Microsoft calls shape writing and what other call gesture writing—continuously sliding your finger through the letters of a word, which is then predicted by the keyboard and entered. You don't have to type spaces with this kind of entry, which is also available in Swype and on Android's default keyboard, but not on the iPhone's, for some reason. Word Flow shows the path of your finger swiping with a dotted green line. The idea is that your muscle memory starts to actually learn the shape of words, rather than the spelling, for super-fast text entry.

The Arc
The most distinctive feature of the Word Flow Keyboard is its one-handed Arc mode. This will be particularly welcomed by iPhone 6s Plus users. It's surprising that such a feature hasn't previously appeared in a mobile phone keyboard—not even in Microsoft's own Windows 10 Mobile keyboard. To use it, swipe on either curved arrow at top left or top right, and the keyboard morphs into a curved layout that fits the reach of your thumb—either left or right, since there's a curved arrow button for both sides.

Though the keys are smaller in the Arc mode layout than in the standard horizontal layout, typing in it isn't much harder, and you still get alternate text suggestions that are usually accurate. One cool aspect of Arc mode is that the suggestions appear even when you go back and place the cursor on an earlier typed word; that feature is found in the other add-in keyboards, as well. In my testing, the suggested words were on the mark, no doubt honed by Microsoft's touted machine learning based on feedback from its use on Windows phones and Cortana. The swiping keyboards feel less stressful on the finger, likely meaning less repetitive-motion-stress potential.

Word Flow Curved Keyboard

Speed
I'm not the fastest texter, but I used my poor skills to make a rough comparison between the Microsoft Word Flow keyboard and the market leader, Nuance Swype. On a shorter, 32-word sample, I got the same time typing it into both Swype and Word Flow, and I was even a little faster on the iPhone default keyboard. I attribute that to familiarity: When entering a short phrase like "When are you going to the party?" I found that I could significantly speed up entry with Word Flow, while the need to peck and enter spaces meant the iPhone default keyboard took me just as long each time.

With practice, shape entry gets faster, as the Guinness Book of World Records has shown. Another plus: Word Flow app's home page shows you your typing speed in words per minute (if you've allowed full access to iOS, as described above).

In the past, I've been annoyed by add-in keyboards inserting an unusual word when I was trying to enter a more common one (particularly in SwiftKey); Swype no longer seems to have that issue. With both keyboards in my test, the culprits were proper nouns; for example, both turned Classic into Claus, for some reason.

A Better iPhone Keyboard
There's no doubt that the Word Flow Keyboard is one of the best replacements available for the default iPhone keyboard. We're not, however, ready to award an Editors' Choice until we retest the competing keyboards, which have improved since our original reviews posted shortly after they launched. If you want to save yourself endless pecking on your iPhone screen, a better way to text one-handed, good text prediction, and custom backgrounds for your mobile keyboard, the Word Flow Keyboard is worth a try.

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